The United States on Tuesday sharply limited Hungary’s participation in its visa waiver program over security concerns regarding new passports issued between 2011 and 2020.
Under the American Visa Waiver Program, citizens of participating countries can travel to the U.S. for tourism or business for up to 90 days without a visa, and simply need a so-called Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).
But starting Tuesday, ESTA validity for Hungarian passport holders will be reduced from two years to one, and an ESTA will only be valid for a single use.
The unprecedented move, in response to security concerns, affects Hungary as the only one of 40 countries participating in the U.S. program.
After coming to power in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government implemented a major policy change that granted citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad — including in Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine. Domestic critics say Orbán’s controversial move was designed to boost his electoral prospects.
David Pressman, the U.S. ambassador in Budapest, told POLITICO in an interview ahead of the announcement, “There are hundreds of thousands of passports that have been issued by the government of Hungary as part of the simplified naturalization program without stringent identity verification mechanisms in place.”
The U.S. government has been engaging the Hungarian government on this “security vulnerability” for many years and across multiple administrations, Pressman said. But “the government of Hungary has opted not to close” it.
Responding to the American decision, Hungary’s interior ministry said the country “will not disclose the data of Hungarians beyond the border with dual citizenship because that would risk their security” and accused the White House of “taking revenge on Hungarians with the new visa waiver limit.”
“This is a really unfortunate day,” Pressman said. “This is not the outcome the United States sought or is seeking.”
Washington’s move comes at a time when Hungary’s relationship with Western partners is at a low point.
Budapest’s NATO allies are deeply frustrated that Hungary’s parliament has yet to ratify Sweden’s bid to join the alliance.
There are also ongoing concerns about senior Hungarian officials promoting Kremlin-style narratives at home, as well as over efforts to water down European sanctions targeting Moscow. Earlier this year, the U.S. imposed sanctions on a Hungary-based bank linked to Russia.
Many Western countries have spoken out about deteriorating democratic standards in Hungary, as well as policies and rhetoric they say undermine the rights of LGBTQ+ people there.
Pressman underscored how American experts had previously identified ways the security concerns could be addressed.
The U.S. in 2017 made Hungary’s status in the visa waiver program provisional, while security concerns were also behind a decision to render Hungarians born outside the country ineligible starting in 2020.
Now, however, all Hungarian passport holders will be affected.
“This is about a choice,” the ambassador said. “The Hungarian government thus far has chosen not to address that security concern, which has led the United States to respond.”
This article has been updated with a response from the Hungarian interior ministry.